What Makes a PC Game Great?
What elements push a game beyond mere goodness and into greatness?
To this author, PC games are best when they deliver a transcendent gaming experience that is possible only with the aid of a personal computer: They don't simulate board or card games, reproduce real-world sports, or try to approximate movies. They are an art form unto themselves.
I surveyed dozens of PC game developers, asking them to share their picks for the ten greatest PC titles of all time. In addition to weighing their opinions, I took into account factors such as influence, innovation, design, and replay value.
To be considered, a game must have achieved most of its prominence on a PC platform. (This explains why Tetris, for example, didn't make the cut: It was clearly the Nintendo Game Boy's killer app). I defined a "PC" as any consumer computer that has a keyboard the user can program with arbitrary code--not just a PC of the IBM variety.
Without further ado, here are our ten greatest PC games of all time, counting down from Number 10, Trade Wars 2002.
#10: Trade Wars 2002
Released: 1990. Developer: Martech Software. Publisher: Martech Software.
For a surprising number of people, Trade Wars 2002 (TW2002) is the greatest PC game they've never heard of. This epic text-based space strategy game hails from a somewhat secret world of Bulletin Board System doors--early online games played on dial-up BBSs, which peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Of the thousands of BBS door games programmed over the years, none has had the staying power of Trade Wars 2002. Long after the BBS era, the turn-based trading game continues to thrive thanks to Trade Wars Game Server, which hosts stand-alone games of TW2002 over the Internet.
To gauge the influence of Trade Wars, you need look no further than the popular massively multiplayer online game Eve Online, which many observers describe as a modern 3D version of Trade Wars. Another link to latter-day glory: Drew Markham, one of TW2002's ANSI artists, later directed Id Software's Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Next: #9: Myst
Released: September 24, 1993. Developer: Cyan. Publisher: Brøderbund Software.
It's hard to find a game simulataneously as successful and as misunderstood as Myst. Cyan's landmark adventure is both revered and reviled in different quarters of the gaming industry. As the un-Zork (serious theme, no inventory) and the anti-Doom (serene pace, nobody dies), Myst seriously challenged the gaming status quo of the early 1990s.
This dark-horse title from the forests of Washington represented everything that twitch gamers hated, and everything that hard-core adventure fans resented. Nevertheless, it sold 6 million copies.
In a 1994 piece on Myst in Wired, Jon Carroll wrote, "The reason for all the success was stunning in its simplicity: Myst was good. Myst was better than anything anyone had ever seen. Myst was beautiful, complicated, emotional, dark, intelligent, absorbing. It was the only thing like itself; it had invented its own category."
Today, it's easy to dismiss Myst as a glorified slide show. But that's actually the core of Myst's brilliance: A small group of people with a tiny budget managed to weave a series of beautiful pictures and puzzles into an utterly compelling and enveloping experience that transcended the limitations of the budding CD-ROM medium. That kind of magic makes the best computer games.
Next: #8: The Sims
#8: The Sims
Released: January 31, 2000. Developer: Maxis Software. Publisher: Electronic Arts.
The Sims is, in essence, a virtual dollhouse. But it's a virtual dollhouse that sold 16 million units--more than any other PC game in all of human history. Clearly Will Wright's versatile people simulator qualifies as a crazy-big smash hit.
"The Sims tapped into some of our most fundamental instincts," says Chris Sawyer (designer of RollerCoaster Tycoon), "People enjoy being creative and making something their own, and people enjoy looking after things and seeing how they grow and develop over time. So it had a much wider audience than most other games, appealing to all ages and genders."
In addition, the Sims is probably responsible for bringing more women into computer gaming than any other title in history--a remarkable achievement.
Next: #7: StarCraft
Released: 31 March 1998. Developer: Blizzard Entertainment. Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment.
Fans still cling faithfully to Blizzard's World of Warcraft killer a decade after its release, thanks to its balanced races, clever unit design, popular multiplayer modes, and compelling storyline. At 9 million copies and counting, it's the largest-selling RTS game of all time, and likely the best.
Next: #6: Rogue: The Adventure Game
#6: Rogue: The Adventure Game
Released: 1984. Developer: A.I. Design. Publisher: A.I. Design.
Originally developed in 1980 for Unix mainframe systems, Rogue eventually found its way to personal computers, including (in 1984) the IBM PC in 1984; the image shown here is from that version of the game. An ASCII-character-cell classic, Rogue not only spawned a genre known as roguelikes, but also mothered the action role-playing game (RPG)--which is slightly ironic, since Rogue is turn-based.
Nearly every dungeon hack-and-slash (for example, Gauntlet and Diablo) and every overhead dungeon crawl RPG (such as Baldur's Gate) ultimately derives from Rogue. And with its randomly generated dungeons, the original is still as much fun to play today as it was in 1980.
Next: #5: M.U.L.E.
Released: 1983. Developer: Ozark Softscape. Publisher: Electronic Arts.
The Atari 8-bit computer platform left a rich legacy of early computer games. Of those, M.U.L.E. stands out as the most important and influential. This strategic masterpiece from Dani Bunten Berry introduced the Atari generation to dramatic competition through economic cunning, demonstrating that players need not blow each other away to have a good time. As members of a motley crew of aliens vying for economic supremacy on a distant world, players have to draw on both instinct and intellect to survive.
"The design of the auction, with its ticking time limit, the moving bars marking sell price and buy price, the up-and-down teasing behavior that either buyers or sellers could use--all made for intense interaction that tickled the deepest levels of human intuition," says renowned game designer Chris Crawford. "That was the greatest design stroke of M.U.L.E., and few modern designers appreciate its significance."
M.U.L.E. received ports to a number of other platforms, but it plays best in its original Atari form, owing especially to the 800's plentiful array of joystick ports, which allows four Planeteers to play simultaneously. (Forget Mario Party; M.U.L.E. was the original party game). Be prepared to dance, too: M.U.L.E.'s triumphant theme song is as good as they come.
Next: #4: SimCity
Released: 1989. Developer: Maxis Software. Publisher: Brøderbund Software.
The first entrant in the long-running Sim series, SimCity made waves as a versatile "software toy" with no preordained goal or purpose other than to accommodate user creation and experimentation. You can play it as long as you want, as many times as you want, and it never gets old. That's because you create the game as you go along.
"SimCity was one of the first games where a few very simple subsystems (crime, property value, traffic, etc.) combined to make an interesting and challenging experience," says Soren Johnson, lead designer of Civilization IV). "Even playing on a black-and-white Mac with a tiny screen, I felt that there truly was a whole city inside my machine--one which relied on my judgment to succeed. I could fit all of the gameplay concepts in my head at once, which encouraged me to experiment frequently to discover how to create the best Sorenopolis."
SimCity has influenced many game designers since its release in 1989, including Sid Meier, who channeled that influence into something even greater than a software toy. You'll see the result in the next slide.
Next: #3: Sid Meier's Civilization
#3: Sid Meier's Civilization
Released: 1991. Developer: MicroProse Software. Publisher: MicroProse Software.
Few games are as addictively fun and as endlessly replayable as Civilization, a turn-based historical strategy game that invites players to guide the development of a civilization over the course of millennia.
In creating Civilization, Sid Meier somehow distilled, condensed, and codified the rules of humanity's postagricultural development into a 3MB IBM PC computer game that was a treat to play. For that achievement, many critics (including me) recognize Sid Meier as one of history's greatest software designers and rank Civilization high among the world's greatest computer games.
Next: #2: Doom
Released: December 10, 1993. Developer: Id Software. Publisher: Id Software.
The release of Doom was a watershed moment not only for PC gaming, but for video gaming in general. Id's archetypical first-person shooter triggered a sea change in a PC game industry previously dominated by plodding strategy turn-fests, brainy simulations, and stilted PC action titles. In contrast, The first of a new generation of fast-paced, smooth action games, Doom changed the rules, pushing PC hardware to its limits. With Doom, PC gamers could experience gameplay, graphics, and sound that were clearly superior to anything available on home game consoles of the day.
"Doom defined the 3D-shooter genre and made multiplayer gaming mainstream," says Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games and creator of the Unreal Engine technology). "And it did them with such incredible polish, artistry, and foresight that it created an industry."
Next: The Best PC Game Ever
#1: World of Warcraft
Released: November 23, 2004. Developer: Blizzard Entertainment. Publisher: Vivendi Universal.
If you resist the notion that World of Warcraft (commonly abbreviated "WOW") is one of the most amazing PC game ever, take a peek at this chart compiled by MMOGChart.com. WOW currently boasts 11.5 million subscribers worldwide--at its peak, 8.5 million more subscribers than the second most popular paid massively multiplayer online (MMO) game.
The consistency, imagination, and epic reach of WOW's game design is breathtaking: Its art direction is top-notch; its living, breathing world is immense, detailed, and varied; its musical score is awe-inspiring (hear WOW music for yourself); and its balance and learning curve are ideal, drawing players ever deeper into a world that they may find hard to leave.
Most notably, WOW's simple and powerful user interface is an elegant work of unsurpassed genius, envied and copied by designers of games both online and off. Even Microsoft Windows could learn a thing or two from Blizzard's user interface. That's heavy praise--but don't you think that the greatest PC game of all time deserves it?
MMOs with far fewer players still chug along after 10 years of service. With its population of 11.5 million and growing, World of Warcraft is likely to be with us for a very long time.
Related Stories of Interest: